As the world tunes in to the Olympic Games, this Friday 27th July, the hopes of over 200 countries are pinned on their nation’s preeminent sporting icons. While the Games have evolved over the past century, the Olympic spirit remains the same: to bring people together in peace and friendly competition.

The 2012 Olympic Games marks an unparalleled sense of history with the inclusion of female athletes from every participating nation, as well as the first Olympics to involve female athletes in every sport.

For the Middle East, this is a particular achievement with both Saudi Arabia and Qatar including female athletes in their respective Olympic teams for the first time.

While much is said of the treatment of women in this part of the world, often misinformed, the inclusion of female athletes in all Middle Eastern teams is yet another positive step in the empowerment of the region’s women.

These women represent the modern and changing world of the Middle East. They have found a balance between cultural expectations and the drive to become leading athletes.

Female Arab athletes participating in London cover a range of sports, including:

  • Judo: Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahman Sharkhani – the 27-year old Saudi Arabian will be competing in the 78kg Judo event as one of the country’s first female Olympians
  • Running: Sarah Attar – this 17-year old Saudi Arabian will compete in the 800m track event as the youngest Arab athlete
  • Swimming: Nada Arjaki – this Qatari wildcard entrant will look to test her mettle on the international stage for the first time in the 50m freestyle. And Faye Sultan will be making history by becoming the first female to represent Kuwait at swimming
  • Shooting: Bahiya Al Hamad – the 19-year old Qatari national will be competing in the 10m air rifle and air pistol events
  • Weightlifting: Khadija Mohammed – the UAE’s 17-year old weightlifter is the first female lifter from the Gulf
  • Pentathlon: Aya Medany – Egypt’s medal hopes are on the 24-year old who will compete in the Pentathlon. This year, Egypt is sending a record 34 female athletes to the Olympics.

These female athletes embody the Olympic Creed, which states: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”

The journey to 2012 has been a hard-won fight for many of the female athletes from the Arab world.

In the Middle East, it is difficult for females to train at a world-class standard. While it is a diverse region both culturally and economically, female athletes have generally faced difficulty finding experienced coaches and training staff, modern training facilities and limited Government investment available to support broad range of sporting interests.

Some have faced objections from traditional members of the community, who find the world’s attention on local women at odds with the culture in which they were raised. Many of the athletes have faced the scrutiny of international media and commentators who, while supporting their inclusion in the Games, have shifted the focus from the sporting ability of these athletes to an international political issue.

Yet despite these challenges, 74 women from the Middle East have qualified for the world’s most prestigious sporting event.

I am looking forward to watching all the excitement of the Games of the 30th Olympiad, and hoping to see some spine-tingling, awe-inspiring feats from our Middle Eastern sisters – particularly if there is a medal haul involved.